In preparation for negotiations, it is important for union leaders to think in terms of "solidarity" and the "interests of the membership," but it is also important to remember that unions are complex and dynamic organizations for which defining the interests of the membership may be a perplexing task. Solidarity is based not on the definition of a single set of issues in which all are in agreement. Solidarity is built on the basis of an organizations internal capacity to recognize and accommodate many diverse interests. Union bargaining power is based not on the lowest common denominator of membership concerns but on the ability of many diverse groups to recognize and support the goals of others in the organization.
To move toward this level of solidarity, it is important to understand some basic elements of organizational dynamics and group behavior. Bargaining power is a reflection of the internal dynamics of the union as much as it is a function of relationships with the relevant employers. The power of a bargaining committee relative to the employer is directly affected by the capacity of the committee to operate on a solid base of membership support.
This paper is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the principles of organizational behavior and the bargaining process. However, it is designed to provide information on issues that can have a significant effect on a local union's preparation for collective bargaining. Each section will raise questions concerning that preparation and suggest areas that many local unions may wish to pursue in greater detail in their unique setting.
Organizational and institutional framework for bargaining
Not all local unions approach the collective bargaining process from the same scope of institutional power. In some cases, a local may be responsible for all aspects of the bargaining process with the international union filling only an advisory, consultative or oversight function. In other situations, the bulk of the contract may be negotiated at the international union level with a relatively narrow scope of bargaining left to local negotiations. Many locals will find their position between these extremes. There is no single model nor is there a best model for the relationship between a local union and its parent organization. Different bargaining structures exist in different sectors of the economy and in different international unions as a result of historical, economic and other institutional concerns.
It is important, however, that local leadership be aware of the institutional framework within which negotiations take place. No matter where within a particular bargaining relationship the center of bargaining power resides, there will be a significant role for the local union, its leaders and bargaining committee. The challenge to the local is to maintain its focus on those aspects of bargaining that are the responsibility of the local. Little is gained by directing undue attention to matters beyond the scope of the local's responsibility.
When individuals are brought together in any social setting, they may collectively evolve into one of several forms of social organization. If those individuals share a common set of values, traditions, beliefs and other characteristics and conditions, there is a strong likelihood that they will function as a very cohesive group. At the other extreme, if those particular individuals have little in common and are thrown together accidentally, it is much more likely that they will function as a mob. Most unions and other voluntary organizations are neither mobs nor cohesive groups. Members of a local union will share many common characteristics but they will also reflect many diverse cultural traditions and value sets.
The goal of local leadership is to understand the forces that bring people together within the local union and to build on those common concerns, while at the same time recognizing their divergent interests and traditions. Diversity should be approached as a source of power not as a source of potential divisiveness. In preparation for bargaining, and in other aspects of local leadership, the union can build strategies that move the local away from mob-like tendencies to greater levels of group cohesion.
Preparation for collective bargaining is a process particularly suited to the goal of building greater cohesion within a local union. Workers are brought together in a single labor union by accidental forces. They share the same craft or were hired by the same employer. Once together, however, those workers begin to experience much greater commonality of interests and concerns. They work under similar conditions and are paid similar wages. They spend hours each day in close proximity with each other and are subjected to many common physical and economic risks.
Even though they have much in common, members of a local do not sacrifice their unique differences when coming to work in a common setting. They bring to the body of the union many different social, ethnic, racial, political, cultural, age and gender perspectives. They may identify more closely with identifiable subgroups within the labor organization than with the union as a body. If the leadership of an organization is able to recognize the differences among the members and recognize the range of interests represented in the membership, the collective power of the organization can be directed toward the areas of common concern. The bargaining process provides an opportunity to address a wide range of concerns within a strategy of common interest. If the voices of all subgroups of the organization are heard, the collective voice of the membership is more powerful.
Strategic and tactical planning
One method for taking advantage of both the common and diverse interests of the membership of a local union is to approach bargaining as one aspect of a broader process of strategic planning. Strategic planning is a prospective and dynamic process through which an organization strives to mobilize its resources in a purposeful means of achieving clearly identified goals. Although there are many strategic planning models, the critical elements of a strategic planning process are outlined below.
Membership support of and involvement in the bargaining process
Economic security and workplace representation are important goals of the union in the bargaining process. However, one factor that separates the union-represented workplace from the non-union environment is voice. Union represented workers have a right to be heard. For a union to build membership support of the bargaining goals of the local, one of the easiest concrete steps to take is to assure that the voice of the membership is heard.
The bargaining process should include a viable method for membership participation in the definition of goals, objectives and priorities of the local in preparation for bargaining. Although the demands of the union in bargaining should be realistic and attainable, they should also be built on a foundation of membership concerns. Although membership concerns should be reflected in all stages of bargaining, there are four specific aspects of the bargaining process where membership relations may be most critical.
Building an effective bargaining committee
The primary factors for the determination of who will serve on the bargaining committee are the constitution and by-laws of the organization. Some unions require bargaining committees to be elected while others provide for ex officio or appointed service. No matter how a committee is constituted, it is important that the members of that committee remember that their responsibility is to represent all members of the bargaining unit, not just those of a particular subgroup within the local. A person, for example, may become a member of a bargaining committee as a skilled trades representative (either elected or appointed), but once on the committee that member is a representative of the entire membership.
This is important to remember when key elements or subgroups of the membership are not specifically represented on the committee. A bargaining committee cannot include representation from all real or potential subgroups of members. There should be no missing voices on the committee even if there are important groups of members without designated representation.